Date(s) - Wed. Nov. 23, 2011 - Wed. Dec. 14, 2011
12:00 am GMT

Blue Sunshine

Kristopher Woofter, Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare


With the popularization of “auteur theories” very few producers get to carry the mantle of auteur, which is usually reserved for directors. Val Lewton is an exception. The nine horror films that Val Lewton produced for RKO studios between 1942 and 1946—including Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Isle of the Dead (1945)—are traditionally described as indicative of a decidedly non-sensationalist, even poetic approach to the horror film. The more subtle style and independent, collaborative spirit evidenced in Lewton’s productions is in part the result of Lewton’s reaction to a show-all horror tradition established by Universal’s larger-budget monster movies in the 1930s that Lewton knew well and disliked. There is, in the Lewton horror film, an emphasis on dread and terror rather than shock and horror. Monstrous presences are suggested and ambiguously revealed. The Lewton films’ visual and aural characteristics—chiaroscuro lighting effects, deep shadows and silences, a baroque mise-en-scène, and distinctive music such as lullabies and folk songs—give the films a dream-like, meditative quality.

A successful author of politically-engaged potboilers such as No Bed of Her Own (1932), Lewton drew upon classic and folk literature as source material, and often took a sophisticated critical approach to his subject matter, such as the anti-colonial exploration of deeply-embedded racist and patriarchal structures in operation in I Walked with a Zombie, and the treatment of childhood longing for power through fantasy in the anti-sequel, Curse of the Cat People (also 1943). Lewton worked under strict budgetary and production constraints, forced to use RKO’s sensational pre-tested titles, to film on existing sets from other RKO productions, and to produce films (often simultaneously) on three-week shooting schedules. Lewton collaborated with a number of important figures in cinema, among them Jacques Tourneur (who would later direct the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum), Curt Siodmack (writer of Universal’s The Wolf Man [1941]) and Robert Wise (whose 1963 The Haunting emulates the Lewton style). But the Lewton chiaroscuro/baroque aesthetic and his subversive ideological themes remain distinctive across all nine films, becoming highly influential within the “monstrous unseen” tradition of horror films, which includes such films as The Blair Witch Project (1999).

It is the visionary quality of the films under Lewton’s collaborative guidance that we will explore in this course. We will also look at Lewton’s output in the context of film noir and the “woman’s film” immensely popular at the time, and influential on Lewton’s brand of 40s horror. Furthermore, the course will highlight aspects of Lewton’s cinema through the lens of postcolonial theory, examining the notion of the unknown and unruly “wilderness,” such as the Balkans and the Caribbean, as a site of political transgression. At least three of the Lewton-produced films will be screened in their entirety: Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Seventh Victim (1943).